Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Building Bhakashal - Process and Progress

I had a question from Arvindh Sundar (@TheIndianDM) on Twitter about the process I used for creating Bhakashal, so I decided to respond here as I have a bit more room than a Twitter thread.

About 8 years ago my eldest son asked me if I had ever played D&D, and if I could run a game for him and his friends, so for his 10th birthday we did a one shot (White Plume Mountain), and he and his friends were hooked. They wanted to play a regular game. 

However, I had been running bog standard D&D for decades, and although I loved the game and the system (AD&D 1e), to be honest the setting wasn’t jazzing me anymore. I was never really a huge fan of the Tolkien influences on the game, and the pseudo-Medieval setting wasn’t doing it for me. So I decided to do something I had always had a hankering to do, create a city setting. 

No more dirt-poor villages and “meeting at the inn”, I wanted something fantastic.

So step one was to do some reading. I dug out a bunch of my old fantasy novels, Moorcock, Vance, Leiber, Asprin, Zelazny and gave them a re-read. 

I was ready at the time to use an existing city setting, there are some tremendous ones out there, so I went out and found every RPG city setting I could get my hands on and read them. 

That’s when I started to realize something, none of these settings were what I wanted. There is this strange thing that happens sometimes, you don’t know what you want until someone gives you something and you say, “I don’t know what I want, but I don’t want that”. I kept having that experience, I found great material, CISO, Harn, Yoon-Suin, all interesting and well put together… but not what I wanted.

So I decided I would make something. At this point I had no intention to publish it, instead it would be for my home game.

The first step was to decide if I wanted to make a new game or a version of an existing game. In my research I had read both Tekumel and Blackmoor, and I decided that this was what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to reinvent the game, lots of other far more creative people were making very different, very innovative game engines that were not D&D adjacent. Instead, I would create a detailed setting with revised game mechanics for various bits, but it would be built on an AD&D chassis. 

Next step was to shamelessly pillage all of the city settings I had read in my research, grabbing the best bits from each. No point in reinventing the wheel! I think this is an important point, everyone wants to do something original and innovative, but you can be original and innovative using existing ideas and putting them together in your own way. You don’t always have to create something radically new.

With a clear idea of what I was making and some markers on how to do it well, I created the city map. I had no experience doing this so I found a city map online and modified it to my needs. That took about 20 hours using photoshop and it looked fairly good. However, I had also just started up a business running D&D games for an after school program, and I decided that I wanted to publish what I was doing for my home game. Once I made that decision I couldn’t use a modified map for my project. I contacted the artist to ask about paying to use a modified version of their map, and they were not keen on the idea, so I decided to make my own.

I found an online map generator to give me the basic framework for the city, then downloaded a copy of GIMP and started to alter it to my needs. That took about 40 hours give or take, but the final product was exactly what I wanted. It didn’t look “professional”, but it looked good and had a bit of that old school do it yourself vibe, which I love.

With the map done I started digging into the setting. My first task was to decide on the “vibe” for the setting, was it high-magic, low-magic, gritty, fun, etc. I decided I wanted magic to be powerful but tightly controlled and limited to a small group of practitioners. I also wanted magic-users to be BADASS. In 1e magic-users are “hide in the shadows” types, vulnerable “glass cannons” who are meek until mid to high levels. I wanted something completely different, where magic-users were bold, badass, public figures, legendary, dangerous, respected, strange and eccentric. I changed the name, no more “magic-users”, “wizards” or “magicians” it was “warlocks” now. Vance and Zelazny were my models here. The thing that made AD&D so flavorful was always hewing to quality source material. I did that for Bhakashal as well, my favorite fantasy authors have been the guiding star throughout this process.

My next step was to pause the city setting and take up spells. I ADORE AD&D’s spells and magic items, but I have been playing with them for 30+ years, so it was time for some new material. I leaned into this heavily. I wrote over 400 new spells for the four main spell casting classes (magic-users, illusionists, clerics and druids). I made the magic-user and illusionist spells all named, e.g. Lorshan’s Wilding Enchantment, Keegstran’s Chilling Grasp, that sort of thing. 

The nice thing about AD&D spells is that they aren’t balanced, so you don’t have to worry if you create a spell that is a bit more powerful or less powerful than other spells of the same level. The process for this was slightly different for each class, but it shared a common core: exploiting the interstices of the rules, e.g. finding places where I could connect a spell to a mechanic in the game, like the concealment and cover rules for AD&D (which are quite generous). Spells are, at the end of the day, mini-games, or individual game mechanics that only apply to the spell in question, some simple, some elaborate. 

So for magic-users I developed areas that I thought were “obvious”, e.g. spells that used magnetism (the original “occult force”), spells that buffed stats other than strength and charisma (e.g. a spell that temporarily increases your constitution, wisdom, etc.), higher level versions of lower level spells that were more powerful or removed particular restrictions, etc.

For druids I tried to connect their spells to game mechanics as well, for example a fourth level spell that takes any “giant” monsters (e.g. giant spiders, giant lizards, etc.) and makes them regular sized. I developed alternate versions of existing spells (slimeskin instead of barskin), and expanded the scope of the class in what I thought were obvious ways, e.g. lots of spells related to lycanthropy.

This was a general design principle in my process, extend the setting into directions it was already going, rather than trying to “subvert” the tropes and design lines of the game. 

For clerics I drew in ideas from non-Western religions (“Create Tulpa” is one example), added spells that piggybacked on existing mechanics (e.g. spells to share your HP as HP are, in part, favor of the gods), and spells that tapped into the idea of the divine (e.g. spells that overwhelm opponents by giving them an experience of the Godhead).

For illusionists I decided to unpack the metaphysics of illusion magic as it was hinted at but not developed in the game, so I built on the idea that illusionists have access to negative plane energy in their magic (summon shadow for example) and ran with it. I also took the idea of generic illusion spells like phantasmal force, and created higher level versions that were better than phantasmal force but restricted the illusion to one kind. So for example, an illusion of spiders that played on subconscious fears rather than just making an illusory spider with phantasmal force.   

With that done, I created over 250 new magic items of all kinds. Again, the process was to either extend something that was already there (e.g. a cloak of protection that gives a +1 bonus but a + 4 bonus against a particular kind of attack, an extension of the “sword +1 / +3 against creature type X” model). Sometimes it was as simple as taking a standard spell and having a wand that recreates that effect (like a wand of fire makes fireballs). 

Once I was certain that I had a good basis of magic and magic items, it was back to city building. After a lot of consideration I decided that I was not going to detail all aspects of the city, Bhakashal is HUGE, to detail the hundreds and hundreds of buildings would have made the setting intolerably big. So instead I decided to use tables to generate the buildings in the various city wards, and the PCs would quite literally create the setting as they played. 

To create the ward tables for the city (there are 54 wards in Bhakashal) I did research to determine what sorts of professions and occupations were common in fantasy settings, and extrapolated from there. That all took about a month. Then I started to add bits and pieces that I had found in the best city settings I read, rumor tables, information on climate and ecology, factions, cultural practices (clothing, food, customs), religion, holidays and festivals, etc. That was another month or so.

Then I decided to deal with monsters. There are mountains of good AD&D monsters, between the Monster Manual, Monster Manual 2 and the magisterial Fiend Folio, AD&D is well served. And they contain many of the iconic mythological monsters that fit a fantasy TTRPG so well. Again, I wasn’t going to reinvent the wheel, so I decided that I would create a small number of original monsters to help create a vibe for the setting, and I would take a selection of monsters from the existing books, one that fit the flavor that I wanted. That involved going through the monster books and selecting out the monsters I wanted for Bhakashal, adding the monsters I created, and making wandering monster tables that selected out only the monsters that fit the setting vibe. I also went afield and found non-D&D sources that fit (e.g. Talislanta). Bhakashal’s monster “vibe” is essentially Fiend Folio meets Robert E Howard.

Character classes were my next step. To create the classes for Bhakashal I did two things: I “re-skinned” existing classes to make them fit the setting, and I created new classes. For the reskinning I emphasized elements that fit the setting, so fighters became “mercenaries” (gaining followers), magic-users became “warlocks” (with patrons and political/public power), priests became “seers” (focusing less on combat and more on mysticism) and thieves became “spiders” (focusing more on 2nd story work and high value crimes). 

For new classes I again relied on the principle of taking what is there and playing with it, rather than creating something entirely new. To do this I created classes that were essentially multi-class characters that were a single class, much like the traditional Paladin is a kind of fighter/cleric or fighter/magic-user. So for example I created the slayer (a ranger/assassin), the jinx (a thief/druid), the cavoral (monk/magic-user) and the spellbinder (cleric/magic-user). I also created some subclasses of the generic magic-user based on particular kinds of magic (e.g. a conjuror, necromancer). In each case I used what was already there in a new way. This was possible, in part, as I had over 400 new spells, so I could assign particular spells to new classes or subclasses. 

Next up was PC “races”. I decided to drop the name “PC race” and replace it with “playable group”, as race was always a misnomer anyway. One of the big tone differences I wanted for Bhakashal was to ditch the dwarf/elf/gnome/half orc races of 1e and replace them with groups based on animal types, something that I was inspired to do from reading Moorcock. AD&D has a whole host of animal humanoids, I changed their names and gave them all characteristics (physical and social), taking inspiration from Talislanta.

Finally, I messed around with game mechanics. The bones of AD&D combat were good, but I wanted some flourishes that would add to the excitement of combat. I combed other games to see what would fit seamlessly into the AD&D system, and I messed around with what was already there. So my initiative system is a hybrid of 2e and 1e systems, I modified weapon speeds so they could be used, I simplified Weapon versus Armor Class modifiers, introduced a described damage system (which is mentioned, but not detailed, in 1e, another example of filling in the blanks of AD&D rather than introducing entirely new elements), and changed the alignment system to connect it to factional membership, and introduced a system for repute based on the encounter reaction rules. 

In every case, the process was to take something that was there, and alter it or enhance it in some way, so the game would “feel” like 1e but still feel different. A good example of this was the critical system. Players, despite what Gygax told you, LOVE critical hits. But the “critical on a 1 or a 20” system, as many people have pointed out, kicks in too often. So I removed critical misses, and replaced the nat 20 critical hit with a “roll over” critical system based on the 1e AD&D monk’s stun mechanic. In 1e a monk can stun on an open hand attack by rolling 5 over what was required to hit. I borrowed this mechanic for criticals in Bhakashal - to get a critical hit, you have to roll 5 over what you require to hit *without modifiers*. 

Then I scoured other games for critical hit effects, Warhammer Fantasy Role Play was a rich source of examples, and I made up my own list for Bhakashal. I also borrowed a gem from Talislanta - if a player wants their character to do something specific, e.g. target a particular body part, or shove someone off a cliff, they can use a “roll over critical” to achieve that. 

As you can see my process here in all cases involves building on what is already there, selectively, rather than creating something entirely new. I know some people don’t like that, and don’t see it as creative, but the advantage of this approach is that it makes the setting far larger and more able to sustain long term play as it is compatible with any D&D or D&D adjacent system. That alone gives you HUGE reach and scope. In essence Bhakashal is compatible with any OSR rule set, and with modifications with any d20 compatible rule set.

And if you are selective amongst the materials that are available in 1e AD&D, you can create something with a very distinctive feeling even though it is made up of familiar elements. Paradoxically, if you play in Bhakashal, though it is a 1e “retroclone” of sorts, you would still find it different from bog-standard D&D as there are no orcs, elves or beholders.

The final part of my process for building Bhakashal was one that I didn’t plan, but ended up being critical to making the setting work: playtesting. As it happens I run an after school D&D program, and over the last three years I have logged approximately 500 hours of table time playtesting the mechanics for Bhakashal. Some aspects were tested earlier so they got more time at the table, but almost everything in Bhakashal has been playtested before it will appear in the final product. That’s no guarantee that people will like it, but does make it much more likely that Bhakashal will work at your table. 

I’m now at the self-editing and assembly stage, creating a first draft that will be sent out for editing, and then its commissioning art and looking into the nuts and bolts of getting the setting published. I consulted with Sandy Pug Games recently on the ins and outs of Kickstarter, and I will also be consulting with Secrets of Blackmoor for more insight into crowdfunding. I have a list of artists I really want to use for the project, and a clear vision as to what I want it to look like when it is done (I was in publishing for more than a decade so I have a sense of what can and can’t be done). 

That’s about everything I can think of, so I hope this gives some idea of the process I used to bring Bhakashal into existence. 

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